Kindness connection: Parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)

Did Avraham attend Yitzchak’s wedding? Well, in the closest thing we have to a wedding description — right at the end of this parasha — Avraham is nowhere to be found. The servant who made the match is there, and the spirit of Sarah is there as she looms large in her son’s memory, but there’s no mention of Avraham. 

And when you consider the parasha more broadly, this absence emerges as but one data point among several. For example, when Avraham buries Sarah at the beginning of the parasha, this time it is Yitzchak who is nowhere to be seen. Yitzchak is similarly absent from the discussion between Avraham and the servant concerning finding Yitzchak a wife. The text makes it abundantly clear that Yitzchak had absolutely nothing to do with it and seems to still know nothing about it until Rivka arrives and the servant explains the whole story. In fact, aside from the one brief and breathtaking exchange that Avraham and Yitzchak have as they climb Mount Moriah, there is not a single line of recorded dialogue between them. And most surprising of all, while we have vivid descriptions of Yitzchak (in his old age) blessing his sons, and of Yakov (at the end of his life) blessing Menashe and Ephraim and all of his sons, there is no scene in which Avraham blesses Yitzchak. He does leave all his possessions to Yitzchak, but there is no deathbed scene, there is no blessing, there are no words whatsoever. It’s too many points to not constitute a pattern. It’s too much of a story to imagine that the Torah isn’t deliberately telling it.

There are surely many possible explanations for this curious — and sad — state of affairs and what the Torah wants us to make of it, and I will attempt only one here. Perhaps what we’re being told is that Avraham experienced the birth and life of Yitzchak as if he were an actor, playing a role in a script that he hadn’t written, and as a result always felt a little bit detached from Yitzchak’s life and story. Yitzchak’s birth was more driven by God’s narrative than Avraham’s. Yitzchak was the direct result of God’s miraculous intervention — an intervention that Avraham deemed unnecessary when God first told it would be happening (“May Yishmael live before You!”). To be sure, Avraham does faithfully carry out all of God’s instructions concerning this miracle child, circumcising him, marrying him off within the family, ensuring that he is the primary heir, and even bringing him up to be bound on the mountain when God asks that he do that, but nowhere do we find him emotionally engaged with Yitzchak. This in contrast, by the way, with the deep feelings that Avraham expresses when Yishmael is banished from the house (Genesis 21:11).

We simply do not find Avraham emotionally engaged with Yitzchak, which is probably why we never find Yitzchak emotionally engaged with his father either.

None of this is intended as a criticism of Avraham. It is obvious that Avraham cared for Yitzchak, and always ensured that he had all his needs attended to. Nor is it my intention, even remotely, to suggest that father and son never spoke. Rather, I’m suggesting that the Torah is subtly but unmistakably painting a story of a father, a great man, who could not get past the feeling that he had been thrust into a script that wasn’t of his own design, resulting in a relationship that lacked the magic of true and spontaneous love. 

The story, looked at this way, is about your life and mine in numerous ways. It’s about the conscious, and sometimes almost superhuman effort it takes to be emotionally present for people, be they family members or acquaintances, when we don’t feel an innate emotional connection to their story. We of course only add more pain to painful situations when we appear to be (and actually are) emotionally detached. And although our difficulty in engaging may be understandable in objective terms, it is often a terrible blow to the one who seeks our caring and empathy.

The story of Avraham and Yitzchak is also about those occasions when we find ourselves, completely unexpectedly, in the middle of situations that call for our response, but about which our first thought may be, “This has nothing to do with me.” The Torah often demands our engagement in situations such as these, such as when we stumble across a stranger’s lost ox or garment, or when we encounter somebody’s donkey that has fallen under its load. The mitzvah “to not stand idly by” presumes a situation that arises “off-script.” Comforting mourners, visiting the sick, tending to the needs of the poor all have a way of presenting themselves unplanned and outside of the narrative that we had written for ourselves. And we are asked to somehow arouse the emotional resources we will need to rise to the moment.  

None of us is a bottomless reservoir of emotional energy, and we have to know how to best utilize our resources. But we can all strive higher and learn a lesson from the life of the father of our people.

Rav Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea, a Modern Orthodox congregation.

Guess how much I love you [Parashat Vaetchanan – Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11]

There is a well-known children’s book depicting a nut-brown hare and its child playing a game called “Guess How Much I Love You.” In it, the child stretches tall and wide, jumps high and reaches toward the horizon to show his affection for the parent. In response, the parent always seems to extend the love just a little further. “I love you to the moon!” the child ultimately says, expressing the largest quantifiable measure of love within his grasp. And with patient simplicity, the parent responds, “I love you to the moon … and back.” The book’s message isn’t about love without limits. It’s better than that. It is a genuine expression of love met with even more love.

The moments when we love completely, when we act fully, and when we are of singular mind amid a plurality of demands and needs are indeed precious. Those moments are the most sacred, the most meaningful because the loving response is equally, if not more powerfully, reciprocated. These moments are inspiring, even knowing that we will only experience them periodically.

This requited love is what we are meant to consider when we recite the words of the Shema and Ve-ahavta each morning and evening, the words of which are found in this week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan. God commands us to love with all our heart, b’chol levavcha (with all your heart/mind). This is a rare construction of the word for heart, lamed bet bet, with an additional letter to define the limits of our love for God. Why does there need to be an extra bet to describe this love? Are the other forms of love described throughout the Torah somehow diminished by this doubling? Is there a possibility that if we don’t love enough, only one bet worth, that we aren’t fulfilling our duty to God, to others, to ourselves? Could our love, somehow incomplete, be unrequited by the One who demands whole hearts?

This unique construction of the word for heart (which appears here in the book of Deuteronomy and in later prophetic and historical writings) has been the subject of much interpretation over the years. Most famously, we read in the Babylonian Talmud explaining that the two “bets” of the word here refer to the commitment to love in totality — both the good and the bad. It even goes further to acknowledge the two bets are the two constructs of our ego, the yetzer harah and the yetzer hatov — the evil and good inclinations. We can play with the dichotomies between so many concepts of love — the real and the ideal, the past and the future, (maybe in our children’s book) the simple and the complex. All of these dichotomies are not meant to be parsed into isolation. We don’t only get to love the other for the qualities we like. We have to love them for all they possess. 

Love, like most emotional experiences, has limitless capacity but is manifest in particular, quantifiable moments. Love is experienced in the countless gestures of help and service to another, in friendship and companionship, and even in moments of chastisement and rebuke. And while love may have unlimited potential, it is only experienced in specific moments. To love b’chol levavcha means we aspire toward a growing expression of love for others, for ourselves, for God. Like the child and the parent playing the guessing game, b’chol levavcha is the caring response we hear from others and even from God when we love this way ourselves. It’s why the words of the Ve-ahavta continue beyond the heart as well. We love with all our souls and all our might because we crave more connection. It is God who desires to respond to every gesture and aspiration along the way. And with a love like this, no guessing in return is necessary. 

Joshua Hoffman is a rabbi with Valley Beth Shalom (, a Conservative congregation in Encino.

‘God is a fraud’

In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotecha, Moses faces the fragility of life as he watches his sister, Miriam, struggle with tzara’at, a dangerous skin disease. Overcome with anguish, Moses cries out to God. His five-word prayer, the shortest recorded in the Torah, beseeches the Holy One: El na r’fa na la (O God, please heal her). God hears, and miraculously Miriam is healed (Numbers 12:1-16). For some, this parasha provides comfort that, indeed, our prayers for healing work. And then there are people like Sarah.

Sarah walked into my office, sat in a chair and confessed, “My mother doesn’t know me anymore.” Tears began streaming down her face. I recognized that a while had passed since I had seen her around the synagogue. She continued, “My mother sits in the convalescent home, weeks now after her fall. Her hip is on the mend, but her mind continues to deteriorate. I tell her, ‘Ma, it’s me. Your daughter.’ Sometimes she looks confused. Sometimes she smiles. Then … then it is as if she’s gone. She just doesn’t remember me.”

‘God is a fraud’

“Rabbi, I haven’t been to services in months. I really want to come to temple — to be with friends, to hear the cantor’s calming music — but I can’t. Every time I hear the  misheberach [prayer for healing], all I can think is that God is a fraud! I wanted to come by to tell you that. So you will know.”

God is a fraud. Those are harsh words, but not the first time I have heard that sentiment. Still, the concept is not nearly as harsh as the new life stage into which this woman and her mother had entered. Roles had suddenly switched. The nurturing mother and her rebellious daughter became the cared-for elder and the care-taking adult. Neither saw it coming; neither was prepared for the emotional, spiritual and physical turmoil this change forced upon them. Neither could understand why the Source of Life would allow their lives to become so painfully messed up. 

God is with you in your pain

So I held onto Sarah’s hand as she cried in my office. We spoke about God. I said, “The Holy One can hold onto both your love and your frustration. Even your anger. Your pain will not, and cannot, overwhelm God like it so often overwhelms your relatives and friends. The Source of Life stands with you throughout all the stages of life, not just the easy or the pleasant ones. Know that when the exhaustion overwhelms you such that you wonder if you can even get out of bed to face a new day, God is there patiently prodding you on. When sadness seeks to smother you, God offers you the strength to still play catch with the kids, or sit down and cuddle with your husband.

“You know, the misheberach [like Moses’ prayer for Miriam] is about healing, not necessarily curing. In my reading of Jewish tradition, I have not found any guarantee that God offers a cure. To cure is to remove the illness, the depression or the disease from our bodies and minds.

The promise of wholeness and healing

“The One Who Heals always offers us, and our loved ones, the promise of refuah, of healing. Healing is about finding a way to face whatever is ahead. It is about shalom, that sense of wholeness amid the brokenness of our lives. Healing is about ometz lev, the courage to go on and face the new day.

“So perhaps next time you hear the misheberach, you will think of your mother, and ask for shalom. Maybe you will say it for yourself, asking for the strength to get up each day, the courage to sit through the visit with your mother, to have the willingness to do homework with your kids even though you really just want to collapse into bed. 

The One Who Heals surrounds you always

“And maybe, just maybe, you will remember that even in the midst of your suffering, God — the One Who Heals — is with you, surrounding you, holding you, helping you carry on. And reflecting God, we at Congregation Or Ami are prepared to listen and hold your hand through it all.

“Remember, too, that the misheberach, like most prayers of healing, can be a source of comfort for you, when you are ready to receive its blessings.”

It was not long before we began seeing Sarah at services again. More recently, she began to reach out to other adults struggling with the newfound role of being caretakers. Together they are finding a way to offer each other support. 

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. His recollections about his Grandmother Esther’s bout with Alzheimer’s is published in “Broken Fragments” (URJPress, 2012). He blogs at and tweets @RabbiKip.

A divine call to action: Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)

Once, on a mission to Israel, we needed a minyan for a prayer service during the airplane flight. We were a total of six men in our group, so we began to scan the plane for the remaining four for the requisite 10 men.

As I went up and down the aisles, one fellow turned to me and said, “Rabbi, make sure you get Jews for the minyan.” I looked at him in astonishment and assured him that I didn’t have any other plans. But why was he worried?  He replied that many years ago on a flight to Israel, they also needed four men to complete a minyan. They went around calling out, “We need four for a minyan—four for a minyan.” Before they knew it, four guys got up and joined them. They handed the men kippot and started the service. Suddenly the newcomers stopped the proceedings and asked what was happening. The others explained that they needed four more men to make the minyan. The newcomers, astounded, said, “We thought you were asking for four Armenians, so we joined you. We are not even Jewish.”

These fellows responded to the call but misinterpreted the message. This week’s Torah portion teaches the same lesson about the importance of hearing the call correctly. The portion begins with the words, “And the Eternal called unto Moses,” (Leviticus 1:1). Our sages point out that this wording is unusual. Generally, in Scripture, we encounter the expression that “God said to Moses,” or “God spoke to Moses.” As one rabbi noted, you don’t have to be a Biblical scholar or even barely familiar with Hebrew grammar to appreciate that the phrase “and He called” suggests that the mind of the person addressed is not attuned to or in communion with the mind of the speaker. One doesn’t call a person with whom one is in intimate conversation or rapport. One calls a man to attract his attention.

The midrash in the Yalkut Shimoni uses this insight to provide a beautiful homily. The midrash points out that the one, who flees from positions of honor and authority, achieves honor and authority. The Yalkut provides many examples of great Jewish leaders who illustrate this principle and comments that Moses represented the best example of all.

The Yalkut tells us how Moses tried to reject the appointment to be the savior of the Jewish people and lead them out of Egypt. God, however, was adamant, and Moses performed admirably. At this point the midrash comments:

“In the end he brought them out of Egypt, parted the Red Sea, brought down Manna from heaven, provided water from the well and quail from heaven, and caused them to be surrounded with the clouds of glory, and erected for them the sanctuary. Having reached this stage, Moses said, ‘What more is there for me to do?’ And he sat in retirement. Thereupon the Holy One, Blessed be He, reproved him saying, ‘By your life! There is still a task for you to perform that is even greater than that which you have done until now; to teach my children my laws and to instruct them how to worship Me.’ ”

If “Vayikra,” the call to continue his task, applied to the greatest leader we ever had, how much more does it apply today?

Why, for example, is philanthropy for Jewish causes suffering among the most affluent and generous of Jewish generations?

Why is higher education in Jewish studies absent among the most educated and cultured in Jewish history?

Why is commitment to a Jewish homeland missing after only one generation past the Holocaust?

At a similar juncture in Jewish history, the great sage Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” That question challenges us today to go back to work, “Vayikra,” to achieve a positive response to God’s call.

This column originally appeared in 2004. 

Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Teach your children well: Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)

As I am the father of twin sons, this parasha, where we learn of the birth of twins Jacob and Esau, has a special place in my soul. Esau sells his birthright, and Rivka helps her favored son, Jacob, “trick” Isaac into a blessing. The portion ends with Jacob fleeing from his brother in fear for his life. Not exactly the ideal relationship that a parent wants between his children. Whenever I study this portion, I have the question that most parents have asked at some point: “Why doesn’t parenting come with a manual?”

When my boys were born, I asked that exact question of a friend. He suggested looking at Pirkei Avot, where it tells us “at 5 years the age is reached for studying the Bible, at 10 for studying the Mishnah, at 13 for fulfilling the mitzvot” and so on (Avot 5:21). But while that may tell me what their religious school curriculum needs to be, it really didn’t help. So I started to study what our tradition teaches us for parenting and found that, in fact, we do have a “parenting manual”: our sages, both ancient and modern.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch expounds on a verse from Proverbs to understand why Esau and Jacob had so many problems. “Educate the child according to his way” (Proverbs 22:6). Jacob and Esau had inherently different personality traits and qualities, and they shouldn’t have been educated in identical ways. We need to encourage the natural qualities of each of our children, and not try to raise them exactly the same. We must see each child as an individual, each as a unique reflection of the Divine that needs to be nurtured differently. Talmud teaches us, “A man should never single out one son among his other sons” (Shabbat 10b). I empathize with Isaac and Rivka: It’s a great challenge, particularly with twins, to not single out one child over the other, especially when they excel at something. But this is clearly one of the primary teachings in the “Jewish parenting manual,” and it is good advice for not just parents, but teachers of all sorts.

There are other pieces of advice for parents, including the Ve-ahavta, with the famous phrase that we should teach our children diligently the words of Torah. But while I found our traditional texts helpful, I found the words that most resonated with me not in our ancient texts, but in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said: “Living involves responsible understanding of one’s role in relation to all other beings.” 

If Jacob and Esau had been taught this insight by their parents, maybe things would have played out differently. When a person consciously recognizes and embraces his or her relationship with others, then all aspects of the person’s life are more in harmony. This is not just a “Jewish” teaching, but consonant with other cultures around the world. The Lakota people enter their ceremonies with the words “aho mitakuye oyasin,” which literally translates as “all my relations”; many tribes of both America and Africa have similar phrases. When we are aware of our relationship with the rest of life, when we recognize the Divinity that is part of everything and everyone, then we walk through life with more grace and joy — something that all parents wish for their children.

Like many teachers, I often say that I learn more from my students than they learn from me. I also agree with the many parents I have heard say that their children are their greatest teachers. In teaching ethical behavior (and teaching, by definition, must involve teaching by example, not just words), we learn how to live more ethically. In guiding our children into a relationship of faith and love with God, we deepen our own spirituality. This may be one of the deeper lessons we can learn from this parasha: to really learn the teachings that we would like to inculcate into our children.

Parenting can be challenging work, as is teaching of any sort. But it’s not just for our children. As Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young remind us, the children teach the parents, too. It’s hard work to allow ourselves to not only teach children, but to be willing to learn from them. Ultimately, however, it may be the most important work we can do in order to create peace and harmony in this troubled world.

“According to the labor is the reward” (Avot 5:23). May we all be blessed to see the results of our labor in our own lives, and in the lives of our children.

Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of The New Shul (, and author of the forthcoming book “Sacred Relationships” (Liturgical Press: February 2013). He can be reached at

Torah Portion: Pagan inspiration

“Beware of being lured into their ways … Do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow the same practices!’” (Deuteronomy 12:30).

I am struck by this verse from our parasha, because I have benefited greatly from other people’s religious practices. My ability to do teshuvah has been transformed by a style of meditation that I learned from Buddhists, and tai chi has taught me how to bring my body into davening.

My experience is far from unique. Judaism has a rich tradition of “borrowing” from non-Jews.

What is more quintessentially Jewish than the Pesach seder? Yet learning while drinking multiple cups of wine directly mimics of the Greek symposium, which predates the seder by several hundred years. The Hebrew word afikomen is based on epikomen, Greek for “that which comes after.”

Another example: The great Jewish philosophic work, Maimonides’ “The Guide for the Perplexed,” is an explicit attempt to integrate the neo-Greek philosophy and science of his time into Judaism. Living in Egypt, Maimonides wrote in Arabic, and he specifically refers to the Muslim philosophers he debated.

But even if tapping other traditions to inform one’s Jewish practice is legitimate, it’s not always advisable. Simply taking a Buddhist prayer and praying it in Hebrew, for instance, or adopting a Buddhist idea like “the interconnectedness of all life” without critically asking if it’s really compatible with Jewish monotheism, threatens the cultural and theological coherence of Judaism.

Since I study with non-Jewish teachers of spirituality, I face this problem often. I remember standing in a meadow with a Native American teacher as he demonstrated a Four Winds ceremony, urging us to throw tobacco and pray in the four directions. “I can’t do this,” I thought. “This is pagan.”

Adapting other people’s ways to Judaism is fairly easy when form trumps substance, such as the rabbis “Judaicizing” of the Greek symposium. Whereas the Greeks used the symposium to debate philosophy, Jews rehearsed their history. Whereas the afikomen signaled the beginning of an extended desert course for the Greeks, it means the “last bite of the meal” for Jews.

It is much harder when it comes to integrating spiritual truths and philosophical ideas into Judaism. Maimonides critically engaged Greek thought, and the result is a rich, philosophical work. He agrees and disagrees with Aristotle and creatively moves Judaism forward. Many of his innovative ideas, controversial at the time, were rejected by Ashkenazi rabbis. Yet, today he is venerated by all, and no one doubts the Jewish authenticity of his thought.

So, how does one decide when it’s “kosher” to learn from others?

I don’t have room here to make the full argument, but I will share my conclusion. Judaism is a comprehensive set of rituals, values and theological/cultural norms that developed in communal/covenantal context over time. All are essential components of a flourishing Jewish people and healthy Jewish identity. The test of importing a new idea or practice into Judaism is whether or not it integrates into the Jewish narrative as it unfolds over time.

To say shalom instead of om at the end of a yoga routine is nice. But when that’s the extent of your Jewish practice, it’s shallow. Authentic, spiritual practice is rooted, roots us, makes ethical demands, challenges us as well as makes us feel good, and pervades every aspect of our lives. That a non-Jewish practice avoids conflict with Jewish norms is not enough, even if one does it at the local Jewish community center.

But when yoga deepens one’s relationship with God and enriches one’s observance of mitzvot by creating experiences and teaching skills that enhance one’s Jewish practice, it is a welcome supplement.

As I stood in that meadow, feeling an instinctive “this isn’t Jewish” feeling, I suddenly remembered Sukkot. I’d been praying in the four directions — with formerly pagan fertility symbols in my hands, no less — all my life. Once I was open to it, I found the Native American ritual to be spiritually productive, connecting me to God’s creation in new and fruitful ways.

But could I pray like a Native American with Jewish integrity?

After study and thought, here is what I did. I “Judaicized” the prayers with language I learned from the Jewish mystical tradition, careful to avoid praying to anything other than the Holy One. Even though there is ample precedent in the ancient Temple rites for ritually offering tobacco, it conflicts with the Jewish norms and narrative of our time. So I dropped it. My offering is words of prayer.

Now the Sukkot ritual has deeper meaning for me. And by praying in the four directions, I engage God through connection with the Earth all year round, which, in this time of global warming, brings the ethical demands of protecting the planet higher into my consciousness.

Our parasha ends with the call to worship at the Temple. As long as we always come home to Jerusalem, with practical wisdom and critical thinking, the encounter with other spiritual paths will often prove fruitful.

Rabbi Mike Comins is the founder of the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality ( and the author of “Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do About It” (Jewish Lights Publishing, and “A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways Into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways Into Judaism”(Jewish Lights Publishing).

Pesach 5772: Lessons my grandfather taught me

Every Passover, as I sit with my family at our seder, I inevitably think of my paternal grandfather, after whom I was named. I never met him. He died five years before I was born, and I was born on the anniversary of his burial. But from earliest childhood, I felt that my grandfather was present, teaching me the values that helped shape my life.

My grandfather was an outstanding Torah scholar. He was ordained at the famous Slobodka Yeshiva in Lithuania before immigrating to the United States with his parents and siblings around 1910. He served as a rabbi in Chicago, where he was respected as one of the city’s leading Torah scholars. He was a prolific author who published widely in Torah journals, and co-founder of the Chicago yeshiva Hebrew Theological College.

One of the most important aspects of my grandfather’s legacy is a lesson I discuss at our seder. My grandfather had a tremendous commitment to religious Zionism that affected my family and inspired my late father and his siblings. Israel was so important in my grandfather’s life that, during the 1920s, he purchased a parcel of land in the N’Vai Yaakov section in northern Jerusalem. At that time, the Religious Zionist Mizrachi movement had built a synagogue in N’Vai Yaakov, and I guess my grandfather thought that this would be a good place to settle if he moved to Israel.

Although he never was able to realize this dream, he gave my parents the deed to that parcel of land when they attempted aliyah in 1949. Unfortunately, they soon found out that north Jerusalem was under Jordanian occupation, and at that point in time their deed was worthless. After the Six-Day War, my grandmother tried to validate her deed, but this time the State of Israel itself intervened. Under the power of eminent domain, it had claimed the land for an army base. My grandmother received a little compensation but not the ownership of my grandfather’s dream.

I recall this story every year when we reach the section in the haggadah that recounts how the five great sages, Rabbi Akiva among them, were so engrossed in their discussion of the Exodus story that they needed to be reminded by their students that the night had passed and it was time to recite the morning Shema. My grandfather, in his commentary on the Bible, Hadat V’Hachayim, noted that the Shema contains an important message that should not be lost on the reader. In the second paragraph, it begins in the plural with the words, “And you [plural] are to teach them to your sons and speak of them.” But suddenly, in midstream, the verse turns to the singular form and declares, “when you sit at home, and when you journey on the road, and when you go to sleep, and when you rise.”

Why the switch? My grandfather answered that the verse reflects the reality of Jewish education. On the one hand, the verse begins with the plural, representing the community’s responsibility to ensure that educational institutions exist in a community. So important is this aspect of communal life that the Talmud powerfully warns every community not to fail in this realm: “And Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah, ‘I have received the following tradition from my fathers … Any town in which there are no schoolchildren studying Torah is eventually destroyed.’ Ravina said: ‘It is eventually annihilated’ ” (Shabbat 119b).

But the community is only one partner in education. The Torah switches from plural to singular to tell us that the other partner must be the parent. Each Jew must be an educator. The community can build wonderful educational institutions, but it can’t by itself instill the love of our heritage, and in particular the love of Israel. Parents must impart to their children the stories that will create the bond between them and the Land of Israel and they must encourage direct involvement in helping Israel.

If we supplement the community’s job of instilling the love of Israel with parental involvement, we will impart the emotional connection that is needed. My grandfather taught me that lesson many years before I was even born, and it still resonates with my family to this very day.

Make the Old New Again: Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)

At the ripe age of 8, I learned the Peter Allen song “Everything Old Is New Again.” It may have been an unusual choice for an 8-year-old to crave hearing over and over. But for me, this song was synonymous with dance class, doing the soft shoe that landed me on stage for the annual spring recital: “Don’t throw the past away, you might need it some rainy day, dreams can come true again, when everything old is new again.”

When I was 8, I didn’t really understand the power of these words. There was nothing that was old in my young memory, except the adults that surrounded me. Yet as we all age, eventually we do remember more and more things that once were new. Remember that fresh, pure feeling that washed over you when you gained a new perspective, a different way of looking at the world? For some it is the birth of a child. For others it is a new job, or moving to a different home. For some it is traveling somewhere new, to view the world from a different angle.

We cling to these experiences to keep them fresh in our minds and in our hearts. We hope to be like children again, to experience the world with a fresh set of eyes. We want to bottle those feelings, later uncork the bottle, take a whiff of that “newness” and shed our adult baggage to experience the world again with purity of heart and clarity of soul.

As we begin a new book in our Torah reading cycle, we immerse ourselves in our ancestors’ attempts to do the very same thing. In the world of ritual purity our biblical ancestors knew, they strove to recapture the new, to be pure in their approach to God. As they defined and prepared their korbanot, their sacrifices, they aimed to strip down to the basics and to cleave close to God, to feel new again.

Leviticus Rabbah, a great collection of rabbinic commentary, tells us that when children first begin their Torah study, they begin with the book of Leviticus. Why? Because children are pure and fresh, and this book is all about attaining this level of purity and closeness to God through sacrifice. In the rabbinic mindset, children did not immediately dive into the messy narrative of our patriarchs and matriarchs in Genesis, but rather they were first exposed to the orderly world of priestly purity to encounter God. 

As adults, we can make the connection between the need for purity and freshness in our spiritual lives and the drive to rediscover the childlike purity of the fresh and the new. We revitalize ourselves by making “the old new again” or by crafting experiences where we truly discover something new. Reacquainting ourselves with the “new” is a risky venture and requires thoughtful planning and effort. It is altogether too easy to stick to the routines that define our lives. But instead, take a step back … back to the purity of childhood, and put yourself in a new and unfamiliar situation. This is how we have the potential to cleave to God as we experience the world in a new way. As the midrash tells us, the book of Leviticus is for children. As the cabaret song tells us, “dreams can come true again, when everything old is new again.” This is how we discover the path to the divine: Follow in the footsteps of your ancestors, and renew yourself.

Rabbi Susan Leider is the associate rabbi at Temple Beth Am ( In July, she will become the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Calif.

Ultimate Truths

Do you consider yourself an idolater? I ask the question in a serious manner, for one of the main aversions, according to the Torah, is the path of idolatry, a path we witness in our parasha this week, Ki Tisa, with the Golden Calf. Yet, in today’s modern world, what does it mean to be an idol worshiper? Where are we to find the idols of today that we are commanded to avoid?

One of the greatest idols of our time is the idol of ultimate truth. There are those who believe that ultimate truth is out there to be found, that it exists in some realm of certainty that assures the finders that they are right. And I am not only talking about the Christian right and their imaginary sense of black-and-white truths, but also among the Jews who seek to articulate a vision of Torah that both accentuates a belief in ultimate truth and alienates those who do not hold that truth to be valid.

In his dynamic book, “A Heart of Many Rooms,” philosopher and theologian Rabbi David Hartman, a modern Israeli thinker, says, “The role of the rabbi is not so much to provide answers as to create questions.” As I understand my role as the spiritual leader of a religious community, I appreciate Hartman’s teaching and embrace it as a profound influence on my way of thinking.

So, the question I am posing here is about Mount Sinai and the experience of revelation that we read about a few weeks in Parashat Yitro, an experience that seemingly should have prevented the scene with the Golden Calf. What happened on that day? Did Moses receive the word of God? Was that word written down and transmitted verbatim to the people? And if so, is that the Torah that we have today? The commentators vary widely on the issue of what happened at Sinai, ranging from everything that ever is, was and will be was said to Moses on that day, to the idea that only the first commandment, “I am the Lord Your God,” was uttered, with many options in between.

However, if there is anything that divides us as a people, it is this idea of what happened at Sinai. There is very little room to dialogue with those who hold that the Torah is the word of God, period. I believe that both humans and God created the Torah, thereby allowing for a multitude of truths to be possible, even as we all read the same words from the same book. A multitude of truths based on experience and time in history: this is the miracle of our people. And that understanding is at the heart of the talmudic tradition, one that values and highlights a variety of opinions, a multitude of truths: the notion that “alu v’alu d’varim chayyim,” that both sides of the argument were the living words of God. While there are objective truths that our society has agreed upon, such as murder is wrong, even those are subject to interpretation, for that is how we allow for killing in self-defense and capital punishment. Furthermore, those truths that we held to be acceptable in the past, truths that allowed us to enslave others, discriminate against others based on race, gender or sexual orientation, are being revealed today as falsehoods. And that is part of our growth and development as a society, as a people always seeking to understand and expand our notion of truth.

The Golden Calf incident reminds us what can happen when we let fear, anxiety or desperation cloud our judgment. We make an idol, a replacement for God, to soothe us in that moment. But while an idol may pacify us in that moment, it won’t last. A few months from now, we will read in Parashat Behar, “You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 26:1). This is a reminder of the 10 Commandments of Yitro and the Golden Calf of Ki Tisa. When we allow our understanding of truth to alienate and vilify those with whom we disagree, we become idolaters. When we think that our way of thinking is the only way of thinking, we desecrate God’s name. This is happening today in our religious spheres — including the current climate of intolerance in Israel — in our communal spheres, and perhaps most dangerously in our political spheres. We must replace the call to ultimate truth, which is the realm of God, with the call of human truth, which is always subject to interpretation, re-creation and continual revelation. This demands humility, a trait that requires us to always hold out the possibility that our truth may not be the only truth, a trait that calls us to have hearts of flesh, as Jeremiah demands, and not hearts of stone.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (

Holy Sanctuaries or Golden Calves – Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)

As human beings, can we know precisely what God wants from us? It might seem, from the beginning of this week’s parasha, that we can: “Bring Me gifts. You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is willing. And these are the gifts you shall accept from them” (Exodus 25:2). God then offers a specific list of valuable things: precious metals and stones, rich textiles, animal skins, wood, oils and spices. At the end of the list of contributions, God says, “They will make me a sanctuary, so that I will dwell among them. Exactly how I show you … so shall you make it” (Exodus 25:8-9). What follows is a template — in unparalleled detail — for building this tabernacle. God tells Moses precisely what is expected from the Israelites: why such specificity and detail?

One specific design in the parasha describes curtains that will envelop the ark inside this Sanctuary. The cover of the ark will have two cherubs facing one another, made from one piece of gold, with wings “spread above, shielding the cover [of the ark]” (Exodus 25:20). It is between these cherubs that God’s presence will come to rest. There is to be a tent above the entire Mishkan made from layers of cloth and skins. One might think that one curtain on each side of the ark would be enough. God specifies, however, that there should be five curtains on one side, and five on the other. Another question emerges: Why so much covering?

My film, “Mishkan,” engages each of these questions in a different way. The question of details is addressed through the choreography. All the movement for the piece came from details in the text itself. In other commentaries I have created, I have to imagine details in the text to generate movement. For this parasha, the movements seemed to almost form themselves – similar to Rashi’s commentary on the formation of the cherubim: “Hit (the mass of gold) with a hammer and a mallet at the middle, so that its ends will protrude upwards and come to form the cherubim” (Rashi on 25:18 “Make them by hammering”). The lampstand with its cups and calyxes; the table made of acacia wood, covered completely with gold; wood poles covered with gold and threaded through golden rings. All these details made a physical embodiment of the parasha almost obvious.

“Mishkan/Sanctuary” by Moving Torah.  Story continues after the video.

The words speak to the question of covering: Construct an Ark. So carefully. Covering after covering, to protect yourself from face-to-face contact. Layer after layer, curtain after curtain, gold upon wood. Gold pole through gold ring, shimmering so brightly that you couldn’t possibly see through it. To the Face.

Which brings us to ask, “Why so much gold?” and, furthermore, what should we make of the juxtaposition of the gold in this parasha, at the very beginning of Moses’ time on the mountain, with the gold used at the end of Moses’ 40 days days on the mountain, when the Israelites form the golden calf?

Even in the Mishkan, God can dwell with us — and we with God — only through veils and covers. The Israelites, at the foot of the mountain, are even farther away. While Moses is on the mountain, the Israelites can’t hear or experience God. In fact, the Israelites are so far away that they can’t even hear it. So far away that all they catch is a glimpse of gold, and they get not the essence, just the form. So they try to embody it in the face of a calf. Perhaps they get just enough reverberation of what’s happening on the mountain to sense that they are supposed to be doing something with all of that gold. In this case, their distance itself (and the anxiety that accompanies it) leads to their misdirection.

Human constructs — by their nature, distanced from God — will never get it precisely right. Some endeavors fall further from the target than do others. Others, of course, do not start with the premise of creating something holy (or, in more secular language, a common good). But for those of us in a post-Tabernacle world who are striving toward creating a life of purpose, how do we discern between the gold of the Mishkan, and the gold of the calf? Between the need for a building fund to house holy service, and the desire to create an edifice for its own sake? Between a halachic (ritual legal) system that prescribes modesty of my own personhood, or one that prescribes a policing of others’ bodies and paths?

The parasha does give us a hint as to how we might try to determine what God wants from us, even now. In our parasha, each Israelite is commanded to bring these gifts “asher yidvenu libo” (as his/her heart is willing). The Israelites, at the bottom of the mountain, act from fear, not from a place of willing hearts. From the parasha, we can see that it takes both a willing heart and great attention to detail as we strive toward building with holy purpose. We need to discern from our hearts, very carefully and with great humility. We can only hope that as we strive with care, we move in the direction of creating a home, a city, a world in which God will come to dwell.

To learn more at Moving Torah, visit

Hillel’s voice is back, and she sounds great! (Parashat B’Shalach/Shabbat Shira)

This week I write to you from Jerusalem, inspired by the headline story from this past Tuesday ‘s Ha’aretz. On the first morning of my trip, here is the headline I woke up to: “New Orthodox Rabbinical Group Puts Israeli Women at Its Head – Hopes to Counter Creeping Religious Extremism.” The name of this new organization? Beit Hillel – an appropriate name for an organization that seeks to represent the moderate voice in Judaism.

The new Beit Hillel organization already has 130 member rabbis, all of whom identify with the moderate wing of Israel’s Modern Orthodox/Dati Leumi (Religious Zionist) world. They created Beit Hillel largely in response to the growing extremism within their own religious circles, and those of the Ultra-Orthodox Haredim.

What does the Beit Hillel organization stand for? In their own words: “We believe that the authentic voice of the Torah supports a democracy that includes women in positions of leadership, behaves with respect towards non-Jews, and fosters an openness towards the world. We will work for women’s empowerment, oppose discrimination and racism, support democratic values, and pledge loyalty to the State of Israel, the IDF, the police, and the Israeli courts.”

Beit Hillel’s members find especially disturbing the recent manifestations of discrimination against women.  In fact, as indicated by the headline, Beit Hillel will be the very first Orthodox rabbinical group to include women amongst the ranks of its leadership, with full voting rights in all religious matters. Thirty women, all of whom are considered serious Torah scholars and leaders in the milieu of Torah education for women, are full members of Beit Hillel.

One of the first initiatives of Beit Hillel will be to establish a series of serious Torah study sessions examining the halakhic issues relating to women’s roles in public positions and in the synagogue.

“It can’t be that women—who do everything in every field – have no religious standing,” said Oshra Koren, one of the leaders of a prominent women’s Torah study program (Matan), and a member of Beit Hillel. “Women must be a part of the halakhic discourse,” she said.

In this regard, the timing of Beit Hillel’s launch this week couldn’t be better. This week’s Torah portion – Parashat B’Shalach – features the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, and the beautiful Shirat Ha-Yam (Song at the Sea). It also features a very strong woman.
The figure traditionally associated with the Exodus is Moses, yet the Talmud states: “It is by the merit of the righteous women of that generation that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt” (Talmud, Sotah 11:b).

The leader of that generation’s righteous women was Miriam, Moses’ older sister. Miriam was the only woman in the Torah who had the status of a “neviah” – a prophetess. In this week’s parasha, she is described as “Miriam Ha-Neviah” – “Miriam the Prophetess.” Rashi comments that she attained the status of a prophetess when she foresaw that her mother would give birth to a boy who would lead the Jewish people out of Egyptian bondage. But in addition to her predicting this, when her prophecy actually was fulfilled and the boy was born, she did not sit idly by and say “I told you so” (like most men would!). Instead, like a true leader who takes action, she also took care of the boy…and you know the rest of the story. Without Miriam’s wisdom and foresight—the instinctive and nurturing wisdom of a woman—the exodus would not have been possible.

As the sea closed on Pharaoh’s chariots, Moses leads the Jewish people in a beautiful song of triumph and thanks to God. This song (shira) – the first song ever in the Torah – is a part of our daily prayer service, and its presence in this week’s parasha gives this Shabbat a special name – Shabbat Shira.

But just like the new Beit Hillel organization, the voice of Jewish leadership was not exclusively male. Just as Moses completes his song, the Torah immediately tells us that “Miriam the Prophetess…took a drum in her hand, and all of the women followed her with drums and with dances. Miriam said: Sing unto God, for he is highly praised, the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:20-21).

At the peak of the most miraculous moment in Jewish history, the voices of two prophets – Moses, a man, and Miriam, a woman – were equally heard, both by the Jewish people, and by God.

Interesting, by the way, that the Torah describes Miriam and the women singing and dancing, but does not say anything about Moses or the other men walking out due to immodesty or kol isha, or the men spitting on them or pushing them to the back of the Jewish encampment. I guess the Haredim in Beit Shemesh and Meah Shearim are holier than Moshe Rabbenu.

Related to this week’s parasha is also this week’s haftara (prophetic portion) from the Book of Judges—Chapters 4&5—the longest haftara of the year. Haftarot are typically chosen due to their thematic connection with the parasha. This week’s haftara relates to the parasha in two ways: 1. It tells the story of a female leader, Devorah, who also had the title “Neviah” (prophetess). 2. It records a lengthy song of triumph and praise (similar to the Song at the Sea), sung by Devorah.

Once again, a woman leads our people, and a woman sings…and we don’t see any opposition to this anywhere in the text.

It seems as if the newly founded Beit Hillel is not introducing anything new to Judaism. They are actually restoring the ancient Biblical and Talmudic tradition that equally counted the four matriarchs (Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah), Miriam the Prophetess, Devorah the Prophetess, Esther, Ruth, Bruriah, Rashi’s daughters and many other women, as prominent voices of spiritual and political leadership in the Jewish community.

Welcome, Beit Hillel…or welcome back.  Your courage and vision are re-kindling a light that will illuminate an authentic and true path of Torah for future generations.

Shabbat Shalom

Unloading the emotional U-Haul: Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)

A funeral director once said, “In all the funerals I’ve attended, I have yet to see a hearse with a U-Haul trailer attached.” But while it’s true that “you can’t take it with you,”meaning material possessions, I’m not so sure about emotional possessions. How many of us have walked behind a casket where lay the body of a relative or friend with whom we were still talking? Or, wrenchingly, with whom we never had the conversation we meant to have?

This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi — “And he lived” — ironically starts out with one of the longest death scenes in Torah, as the 147-year-old Jacob prepares to die. The cryptic blessings he gives to his 12 sons must have left them with as many unanswered questions as they leave us.

Is “blessing” even the right word for what Jacob says to each son? Jacob begins by saying, “I will tell you what will come to you in the end of days” (Genesis 49:1), and then offers each son words that seem part blessing, part fortune-cookie fortune, and part description of what each son has done or is like — their nature or what animal they resemble (“Judah is a lion cub”). Truly poetic, the passage ends:

“All these are the tribes of Israel — twelve — and this is what their father spoke to them, and he blessed them; each one according to his blessing he blessed them” (Genesis 49:28)
“Each according to his blessing.” Certainly, each son is different from the others, and finally here, if not all along during their shared long lives, Jacob acknowledges that he sees each one differently.

But what happens when a conversation — a blessing — is one-sided, like these from Jacob to his sons? “I will tell you what will come to you.” Be it unrelenting expectation or its opposite — chronic disappointment — what room is there for growth or change once their father’s “blessing” is set down for eternity? The blessings are likely to be mixed — just consider the emotional baggage those sons must have carried when they returned from burying a manipulative father who played favorites.

Perhaps, like us, our sages were wary of the constriction of such specific blessings, for in recent centuries the tradition derived from this Torah portion relies on an earlier moment in Vayechi when Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons. The Jewish tradition of blessing our sons as Shabbat begins each Friday night recalls these words of Jacob: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh” (Genesis 48:20).

At our congregation on Friday nights, we offer a blessing for family, and we include in it the blessing of children by contemporary liturgist Marcia Falk: “Be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are.” Falk explained her choice to respond to — but ultimately leave behind — the traditional blessing for sons by saying:

“Why Ephraim and Menasheh, one cannot help but wonder — indeed, why any particular ancestors at all? … Why should we wish for a child to be anything other than her or his best self? … Yet letting a child be herself, himself — letting go of expectations that do not emerge from the reality of who the child is — is one of the hardest lessons parents have to learn.” Then she adds a hope for parents that in the framework of the onset of the Sabbath, a time in which “we let go of strivings and take note of the world’s abiding gifts,” that “we pay special attention to the children in our midst, thankful for their being, accepting of who they are, hopeful that they will blossom into their best selves” (Falk, “The Book of Blessings,” p. 450-51).

On the way to unloading the emotional U-Haul, our congregational prayer for family also adds a few hopes for family members in general, whatever ages, however we came to call them family: “May we reach out to them and hold them; may we say the words we need to say to one another; may we feel the love we have for them, and they for us. Dear God, in whatever way it comes into our lives, we give thanks for the blessing of family.”

And this week, as we complete this year’s reading of the Book of Genesis, we add another traditional blessing: khazak, khazak, v’nitkhazek, “be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.”

Back to School: Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

With a new school year upon us, I found the following story, “What Teachers Make,” revealing.

“The dinner guests were sitting around the table discussing life. One man, a CEO, decided to discuss the current problems with education. He argued, ‘What’s a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?’

“He reminded the other dinner guests what people say about teachers: ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.’

“To stress his point, he said to another guest: ‘You’re a teacher, Susan. Be honest. What do you make?’ Susan, who had a reputation for honesty and frankness replied, ‘You want to know what I make? I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could. I make kids wonder. I make them question. I make them criticize. I make them apologize and mean it. I make them write. I make them read, read, read. I make them show all their work in math and perfect their final drafts in English. I make them understand that if you have the brains and follow your heart, you will succeed; and if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make, you must pay no attention because they just didn’t learn.’ Susan paused and then continued, ‘You want to know what I make? I make a difference. What do you make?’ ”

Susan, I’m sure, could make each of us wonder, “What difference do we want to make?”

An answer to this pressing question is found in this week’s Torah reading. The Torah declares, “You shall be wholehearted with Hashem, your God” (Deuteronomy 18:13). This statement has always been so essential to Judaism that Maimonides argued that it is an overriding principle and not a specific mitzvah, therefore he did not include it in his enumeration of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. 

Whether Maimonides’ interpretation is correct or not, what is fascinating is the context in which this verse is found. This statement is part of the prohibition that a Jew may not use divination, read omens or frequent a sorcerer in order to find out what the future holds.

So what does “you shall be wholehearted with your God” have to do with prohibiting divination? The answer is a lesson for us and for our children.

The Talmud, in tractate Shabbat 156a, declares, “Celestial signs hold no sway over Israel.” The Talmud, however, wonders if astrologers really are able to tell the future. According to the Talmud it would appear that they indeed do have such powers. But do they have the final word? The answer is absolutely “no.”

If one leaves his destiny in the hands of someone such as a fortune-teller, the Torah understood that a person would achieve nothing in life. One will always have an excuse that he or she can use for all mistakes. “I was doomed from the outset,” someone could argue.

Being “wholehearted,” as the Torah commands, is the opposite of relying on the sorcerer, because when one is wholehearted he has achieved on his own. Outside forces aren’t the determiners. This is exactly what the Prophet Jeremiah wrote in the third chapter of Lamentations. At first he blames God for the destruction of the Holy Temple. He declares, “I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of His wrath” (Lamentations 3:1). Who should we blame? It isn’t our fault but God’s wrath. But as he contemplates that charge, he begins to change his mind and says: “By the command of the Most High, neither good nor evil come” (Lamentations 3:38). And finally, Jeremiah concludes, “Let us search and examine our ways, and let us return to the Lord” (Lamentations 3:40).

What a lesson this is for all of us, but in particular for our children. We want them to use their own talents and not to give excuses if they fail. We want them to be able to rebound on their own and not to depend on any crutch that will only hinder their growth.

So, what should we tell our children as they begin a new school year? Perhaps something like this: “Be yourself, and achieve your best, but only achieve it ethically and morally. Never offer excuses if you don’t succeed, for that will never allow you to grow. Rather, know that we are proud of you, and if you try hard enough we know that you will achieve your goal.”

Revisionist History: Parashat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)

My grandmother loved to tell family stories in which key details were changed. Sometimes she swapped out one time period or location for another. Sometimes key characters were replaced or motivations recast. More than slips of memory, these alterations were her way of putting the past into perspective, of teaching lessons and of casting a favorable light on the generations gone by. I lovingly called this trait “Nana’s revisionist history.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Devarim, Moses presents his own case of revisionist history. As he stands before the Israelites and recalls many of the events that took place during their wandering years, he includes the retelling of how, as the people grew in number, his task of serving as judge over all of their disputes proved to be too burdensome. As a result, he explains, he began delegating his authority to other able leaders. In the retelling, Moses says, “Thereupon I said to you, ‘I cannot bear the burden of you by myself’ ” (Deuteronomy 1:9). From Moses’ point of view, this was a story about him relieving himself of certain arduous tasks in order to become a more effective leader.

But when we compare Moses’ recollection of this experience to its first recounting in Exodus, it becomes evident that Moses skipped over some key elements of the narrative. First, according to the book of Exodus, Moses was not the one to realize that he was overwhelmed in his position of judge. It was his father-in-law, the Midianite priest Yitro, who took notice of his plight, inquired about his judging process and suggested a new way of managing the situation (Exodus 18:13-27). It was Yitro who said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” (Exodus 18:14). Second, from Yitro’s words, we realize that what Moses experienced as his own overburdened schedule was actually a much bigger issue. Moses may have been overburdened, but the people were also without justice — waiting all day to be heard.

In his retelling, Moses falls into two of the common pitfalls of people engaged in self-reflection: He fails to recall the significant input of others, and he places his own experiences at the center of a much larger narrative. Essentially, either way you slice it, Moses presents the past as being all about him.

And I wonder: What can we learn from Moses’ process of introspection? How might it inform our own soul-searching in the weeks ahead?

Parashat Devarim is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. In this sense, Devarim serves as one of the gateways into the period of reflection preceding the High Holy Days.

The ancient rabbis teach that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred that existed between people (Yoma 9b). In the wake of destruction, people were asked to reconsider their place within their own societal narrative. In that generation, people failed to realize that their individual actions had very real repercussions on a more global level. In contrast to Moses, they failed to see that they were, in fact, at the center of a much larger narrative. In this case, the situation had everything to do with them.

And so, this week, we are presented with two moral lessons, which seemingly lead us to opposite conclusions. Both Moses and our Second Temple period ancestors remind us that, when looking backward, it is important for us to keep a sense of perspective regarding our own place in history. On the one hand, we are cautioned not to see our own stories and actions to the exclusion of others. On the other, we are reminded not to cede a sense of responsibility so completely that we fail to see the broader ramifications of our actions.

The real work of teshuvah comes when we are able to understand the difference between that in our past which was about us (mistakes made, hurts inflicted, etc.) and that which was not (actions taken by others, decisions made that affected us, the random and natural course of the universe, etc.). Our real learning lies in being able to differentiate between that which we could have changed and that which we could not.

At different points in our lives, each of us will be a Moses or a Second Temple-ite. Meaningful introspection comes when we are able to rise above these polarities. As the Serenity Prayer so wisely intones, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Real Spirituality: Parashat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

Spirituality, kabbalah and meditation are buzzwords in today’s religious lexicon. But do they really describe religion?

A number of years ago, my mother, who lives in Cleveland, received a call from the major local paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The paper was doing a feature story on the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, for its weekend column on religion. They called my mother, an Orthodox rebbitzen and a well-respected academic, for her observations. During the interview, the reporter asked my mother, “When you went to the mikveh, did you experience spirituality?” My mother answered, “All religious experiences involve spirituality. If you mean, did I feel a halo hover over my head, no. But did I feel I was performing a divine commandment? Then definitely, yes.”

The divine commandment as the ultimate spiritual moment explains an enigmatic story that has occupied the attention of Bible scholars from time immemorial. The story occurs right after Miriam dies, and the water supply for the Jews in the desert suddenly goes dry. To rectify the problem, God commands Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock in order to extract water. But, in a moment of frustration, Moses hits the rock twice with his staff and subsequently water miraculously gushes forth. Following this act, the Torah records that God said to Moses and Aaron, “You did not believe in Me enough to sanctify Me in the presence of the Children of Israel. Therefore, you will not bring this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12).

The punishment was swift in coming, but one must wonder how God could claim that Moses and Aaron did not sanctify His name? Did anyone who witnessed the water gushing out of the rock think this was not a miracle? Certainly everyone present knew that it was a great miracle. When does a rock produce water, let alone more water than the mass of the rock itself, which certainly violates every law of basic physics?

Perhaps, however, we can find an answer to this problem. God wanted Moses and Aaron to speak and not to perform any act. God wanted the Jewish people to learn that you do not have to do “wild and crazy” acts to encounter the Almighty. The lesson God wanted us to learn was that we just have to speak and God listens.

In simple language, if you want spirituality, you don’t need meditation or kabbalah. You don’t need anyone teaching you mysticism. In Judaism, the greatest spiritual encounter is simply talking to God. Every time we thank God for our physical needs, such as in the morning blessings when we thank Him for our ability to see, to walk and to care for our bodily functions, we have achieved the ultimate spiritual moment possible.

And maybe that is the point. What is Jewish spirituality? The answer is realizing that we must be grateful to God for all of the gifts we receive daily. Spirituality isn’t mystical; it is rational and concrete. We just have to think about what we do, and then it all becomes a remarkably close encounter with the divine.

Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum once told me the following story:

After years of trying to locate documentation of religious heroism among the Orthodox community during the Holocaust, he finally made some inroads by interviewing a Chasidic rebbe who had survived those ghastly years. The rebbe recounted how, in 1944, he was assigned to clear the railroad tracks in Auschwitz after Jews arrived at the concentration camp and deposited their belongings on the tracks. Following the arrival of a train filled with Hungarian Jews, he found a pair of tefillin and smuggled them into his barracks. Every morning, while it was still dark outside, he tried to put on tefillin. He wasn’t successful every day, but the days he was, he told Berenbaum, he will never forget. Wearing those tefillin in the hell of Auschwitz proved to be the most spiritual moments of his life.

The real spiritual story in Judaism is encountering God every day by performing mitzvot and conversing with God in prayer. That isn’t a buzzword; that is reality.

Engraved Ideas: Parashat Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34)

In 2008, the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed written by Marisol Leon, a young woman who graduated from Yale in 2007 and returned to teach in the same public middle school she had attended:

“‘Think Ivy League,’ pleaded Mrs.  Anderson, my English teacher. ‘Ivy League? What is that?’ I wondered. I was in the seventh grade that day, a student at Mount Vernon Middle School in mid-city Los Angeles. I stood there in awkward disbelief as Joan Anderson explained the notion of elite colleges to me. I knew hardly anything about colleges: Neither of my parents finished high school. But my teacher understood that, and by the time I graduated from Mount Vernon, she had made certain that I was committed to going to college. Wednesday was my first day back at Mount Vernon, which is now Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School. I am a seventh-grade English teacher, placed here by Teach for America.”

Leon describes how she was inspired by her teacher and how she inspires her students by sitting them in groups of four. Each group is named for a different role model, and a picture of that role model hangs above each group with a quote on the back. For example, on the back of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu’s picture is the quote, “The world is not going to change unless we are willing to change ourselves.”

Inspiring people is as old as history itself. How do we inspire people to do right rather than wrong? An answer is found in the opening words of this week’s Torah portion: “If you will go in My decrees” (Leviticus 26:3). The word for decree is bechukotai, which gives the name to this portion. This word is usually associated with chukim, the nonintelligible laws that are beyond man’s total grasp, such as the laws of the sacrifices.

The Baal HaTanya, the 18th century founder of Chabad Chasidut, wondered why the Torah referred to the commandments by the word bechukotai, the laws that seem to us to be nonintelligible. He noted that the word actually has another meaning — chakika, engraving. To appreciate this point, he explains that there is a big difference if one uses ink and writes on parchment or if he engraves the words into a stone. With ink and parchment the two items are separate entities, never fusing into one. It is similar to one who puts on clothing. The clothing may rest on the person, but they never become one entity.

When it comes to engraving, however, the words etched into the stone are part and parcel of the stone. It is for this reason that this is the word used in describing Jewish commitment, and, if you will, Jewish spirituality. What counts isn’t what is on the surface; it isn’t the warm and fuzzy feeling. What matters is that which is engraved down deep and into the heart of the Jew.

The Shlah, one of the great kabbalists of the late 16th and early 17th century, noted an oddity that deserves our attention. In this week’s portion we have the Tochacha, frightening verses of retribution that describe what will happen to us if we don’t follow the commandments of the Torah. Before the end of the Tochacha, the Torah declares, “I will remember My covenant with Jacob and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember, and I will remember the land” (Leviticus 26:42).

The Shlah wondered why the Torah placed this seemingly comforting verse inside the Tochacha rather than after it concluded. He insightfully suggests that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the best ethical lesson we can ever receive. They stare us in the face, if you will, and tell each of us, we too can follow their example. We too can be devoted to God and Torah just like they were. We too can engrave the Torah on our hearts and not make it a superficial experience.

Every generation needs its outstanding teachers who will engrave the message of our Torah onto our hearts. Our eternal teachers are our patriarchs and matriarchs who lived challenging lives and yet remained loyal to God’s calling.

Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City (, an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.

Ears, Toes and Thumbs: Parashat Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33)

Author Hillel Halkin, reviewing the Koren Sacks Siddur in the spring 2010 Jewish Review of Books, recounts a charming story that he heard from his father:

“My father, who prayed with great kavanah [concentration] yet was adamant about having no religious beliefs whatsoever … once told me a story about a man standing in the street outside a shtibl, a little synagogue, looking for a tseynter, a 10th Jew to add to the nine waiting inside to say the afternoon prayer. Spotting a likely looking candidate, he asks: ‘Excuse me, mister. Are you Jewish?’ ‘Yes, I am,’ says the Jew. ‘What can I do for you?’ ‘You can join a minyan for Mincha,’ the man says. ‘I’m afraid that’s impossible,’ answers the Jew. ‘Why?’ asks the man. ‘Because I’m an atheist,’ says the Jew. The man gives the Jew a withering look. ‘And where,’ he inquires, ‘is it written that an atheist doesn’t have to say Mincha?’ ”

For Judaism, the best way to pray is with a minyan. Halkin notes, “Praying in a minyan is different from praying alone, less because of the additional prayers said by the worshipers than because of the human solidarity established among them.”

The human solidarity that the minyan offers is a mirror image of what the Jewish community is all about. In Jewish tradition, recited in the Shabbat Musaf service, those who “faithfully occupy themselves with the needs of the community” are the ones who are blessed. Likewise, those who dismantle the community structure are denounced in the harshest of words.

In this week’s Torah portion this lesson is taught in an unusual way. Parashat Metzora is a continuation of last week’s Parashat Tazria, in which we learn about the Metzora, a person who contracts a specific skin disease, perhaps leprosy or a form of psoriasis, for what the Talmud, in Arachin 16a, describes as a punishment for, among other sins, lashon harah, speaking evil against others.

The Torah continues the discussion in this week’s portion by focusing on the purification procedure for the Metzora whose symptoms have been healed. The Metzora is instructed to bring three different sacrifices followed by what would appear to be a most unusual ritual.

“The Kohen shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the Kohen shall apply it to the cartilage of the right ear of the one coming to be purified and on his right thumb and his right toe” (Leviticus 14:14). The Kohen also performed this same formula with leftover oil as well.

Strangely, this procedure wasn’t just limited to the Metzora. The Torah taught us in Exodus 29:20 that when the Kohanim were inducted into their priestly service this very same ceremony was performed on their ear, toe and thumb. What possibly could connect the Kohen and the Metzora, two diametrically opposite people?

Perhaps we can suggest that the Kohen represents the leader par excellence of the community. His role was to represent the community in its service in the Holy Temple. As he was inducted into service, the three parts of his body that are needed most for one to serve the community well, namely his ears, toes and thumbs, were anointed for this purpose. The Kohen’s hands and feet are the limbs responsible for moving the body, while the ears are responsible for hearing the pain of others and responding accordingly.

The Metzora is the antithesis of the Kohen. Unlike the Kohen who unites the community, the Metzora’s evil tongue divides society and destroys unity. In order to be rehabilitated, the Metzorah must recognize the important role communal unity plays. Hence he follows the exact same procedure that the Kohen experienced on the day the Kohen was inducted as community leader.

In his book “The Prime Ministers,” Yehuda Avner, speechwriter and adviser to four Israeli prime ministers, recounts how Menachem Begin hid from the British in 1946 disguised as a rabbinic student. During that period, Begin attended a little synagogue located near his hideout. Reminiscing years later, Begin recalled, “What a great little shul that was. There I found solace when life in the underground was at its harshest. That little shtibl became a part of my daily life. The balei batim — congregants — were wonderful: a cross-section of hard-working Tel Aviv craftsmen, small shopkeepers, laborers and artisans. They were true amcha, solid, down-to-earth, patriotic citizens. I regularly attended their evening Talmud classes, both because I enjoyed them and because they reinforced my cover.”

The Jewish community must represent “amcha,” the composition of all elements of the Jewish people. It is our job to see to it that the communal fabric stays strong, allowing all Jews to be counted in our minyan, for that is the antidote to the Metzora.

Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City (, an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.

Refining Our Souls: Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

The aphorism “you are what you eat” first appeared in French and then in German in the 1800s, and was then brought into English in the 1920s by nutritionist Victor Lindlahr, the inventor of the “catabolic diet.” Hippie foodies later adopted the phrase in the 1960s.

But the original place where we find the idea that people and food are intimately connected is in this week’s parashah, Shemini.

The Torah lays out the framework for the original “you are what you eat” manifesto, known to Jews as kashrut. However, kashrut is a real mystery in many ways because it is part of chukim, laws given without any rational reasoning as to why we should follow them.

Throughout our history, from the famous debates of Maimonides and Nachmanides to modern times, commentators, rabbis, scholars and many others have sought to find reasons — medical, spiritual, biological or otherwise — to ascribe meaning to why these limitations were given. We continue to come back to the same answer: Keeping kosher is one of the mitzvot of our tradition that defies logical reason. But this doesn’t mean that there is not great meaning and value in making the choice to eat certain foods and not eat others.

I like to call it spiritual discipline, which is how I describe all mitzvot, especially in an age when the majority of Jews don’t feel commanded by God in this regard, yet are searching for meaning in our wonderful ritual traditions. And, actually, the argument that “God wants us to act in this way” was already rejected by none other than the ancient authors of the classical midrash: “The mitzvot were given to Israel in order to refine people. For what does the Holy One care whether a person kills an animal by the throat or the nape of the neck? Hence the purpose of the mitzvot is to refine people” (Genesis Rabbah 44:1; Leviticus Rabbah 13:3).

Kashrut is important because of the connection between eating and our souls. Not because eel is evil, but because limiting what we eat, for a holy purpose, for the sake of connecting to the mysterious aspects of life, for the sake of connecting to our ancestors, for the sake of connecting to other Jews, are all valuable contributions to the “refinement of our soul.”

My own personal kashrut has changed over the past 19 years. I used to be incredibly strict, eating only in kosher restaurants, eating only foods with OU hekshers. As my own understanding of mitzvot and Jewish practice began to shift, my kashrut has become more of a personal choice. I don’t expect everyone to agree with this, for sure, but I eat vegetarian dishes or fish in any restaurant, in anyone’s home, worrying less about what the food was cooked next to and more about what ends up in my body. I make the conscious choice to not eat the foods prohibited by the Torah, to not mix milk and meat (I don’t eat meat, so that makes it easy) and to keep a spiritual discipline around eating. I believe that this approach is very doable, and I would urge those not keeping any sort of kashrut to try it, connecting to the ancient wisdom of our Torah and our people. Limiting what we eat, especially in today’s world of gluttony, can bring much spiritual depth and reward. In fact, Maimonides does say “that the purpose of kashrut … is to put an end to the lusts and licentiousness manifested in seeking what is most pleasurable and to taking the desire for food and drink as an end” (“Guide for the Perplexed III,” 35).

Lastly, I want to say a word about the emerging Jewish food movement, led by my good friend Nigel Savage at Hazon. To be sure, the ethical practices of humane treatment of animals has gotten lost in modern, billion-dollar agribusiness, which includes some of the major kosher farms. There are those who are questioning whether free-range, organic meat is not more kosher than the industrial-style kosher meat. These are good questions. There are those pushing us to look at the treatment of the workers who grow our food and how that affects its kashrut. This is good. Jewish groups are part of the movement to eat locally grown foods, and many synagogues participate in community-supported agriculture, which is great.

Kashrut is much more than a heksher or a mashgiach, and it is precisely the midrash’s call to “refine our souls” that should be inspiring us to look deeper at this ancient practice. If you are just beginning, start by limiting some of your choices as a spiritual discipline and grow from there. For the Torah was the first to coin the slogan, “You are what you eat.”

Shabbat Shalom and happy kosher eating!

Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (, a Conservative congregation in Pasadena.

Familial Forgiveness

The syllabus for my USC general education class includes both Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and chapters 37-50 of Genesis — the Joseph story or “novella.” These two narratives share themes that commend themselves: forgiveness and reconciliation. Both Prospero and Joseph were set upon by their own brothers and narrowly escaped death. Both protagonists contributed to their victim role — Prospero through neglecting governance and Joseph by insensitive boasting. In the end, though, both forgive those who abused them — enabling their family circle to be repaired and the next generation blessed. Just as Prospero realizes that “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance,” so too does the instinct for reconciliation surge through Joseph.

Just barely, however. And it is in this week’s parasha where Joseph turns the corner. That turn allows him to be a brother and son while also being himself. In effect, that turn enabled us to become the Jewish people who went out of Egypt and returned to Israel. Such turning is not easy, then or now, within a family or within a people.

The stellar moment of Parashat Vayigash comes when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers: “I am Joseph. Does my father yet live?” (45:3). For me, Joseph’s trumpeting of his individual identity within a complex social situation echoes across the millennia: “It is I, Hamlet the Dane.” “Call me Ishmael.” “I am an invisible man.” We know from literature and our own lives how difficult it can be, not only to forgive those who wrong us, but to be both our parents’ child and our own self. American society keeps struggling to strike the right balance between self and other, healthy individualism and civic cohesion. We could do worse than Joseph as a model, precisely because such balancing does not come easy to him.

Upon reflection, it’s clear that being able to forgive requires the stretching of personal borders and the capacity to take a broad view. Ironically, only a secure person or people can manage such a stretch; only a firm hold on one’s own life thread permits that thread’s being woven into a larger tapestry. Through suffering, Joseph has sloughed off his egotism and gained a clear sense of God’s providence. So matured, he reassures his brothers with great sensitivity: “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” He does this while still realistically urging them to “not be quarrelsome on the way” back to their father Jacob (45: 4 and 24).

I will not assume that others have as much trouble as I being like the Joseph of Parashat Vayigash. For me, it has not been easy to get beyond familial and other breaches. The struggle continues to transcend resentment for past ills and discern the outlines of a divine plan. On the Jewish level, it can be hard to meet inner needs and participate in community. Hard also to hold together ahavat Yisrael — the special bond among Jews — with acknowledgment of where we have done wrong, forgiveness of the wrongs that have been done to us, and effort to repair the damage and move toward the wholeness that is peace.

All the levels of our lives are linked and require constant tuning. As individuals who belong to families, as American citizens who are members of both the Jewish people and the world order, we have to be able to forgive in order to go forward. From beginning to end, our sacred scripture, the Tanach, records disruption and repair in irregular sequence. Until the Messiah comes, the best we can do is strive toward the enlightenment and clear-sighted resolve displayed by our patriarch Jacob at the end of chapter 45: “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.”

Rabbi Susan Laemmle is dean of religious life at USC.

Torah Portion

Deeply ingrained ideas die hard. This week’sparasha,however, helps to ring the death knell for one such idea. Many of ushave been trained to believe that the Torah’s commandments can bebroken down into two basic categories. These re: the mitzvot we do for God and themitzvot we do for the benefit of fellow human beings. The kosherlaws, for example, would belong to the former category, and the lawsregarding the returning of lost items, for example, would belong tothe latter. This classification system may be neat and clean, but itis also inaccurate and it distorts one of Judaism’s most importantmessages.Evidence that the system is inaccurate permeatesthis week’s portion. Consider, for instance, this week’s presentationof Shabbat. Although Shabbat is thought to be a classic example ofmitzvah that we do for God, you would never get that idea bylistening to the Torah reading this week. Rather, you would hear,”…on the seventh day, you shall rest so that your ox and donkey mayhave rest, and so that the son of the handmaid and the stranger maybe refreshed.” Shabbat is here a labor law, ensuring proper treatmentof those who work for us, rather than the more familiar “remember thecreation” law that was presented in the Ten Commandments.

Similarly, the explanation given this week for notharvesting crop in the Sabbatical year (shmita) is not the morefamiliar “it is a Sabbatical year unto the Lord”; rather, it is “sothat the poor of thy people may eat [it].” Shmita has an unmistakablesocial-welfare component to it.

Conversely, many mitzvot that we generally assumewe are doing for the benefit of fellow human beings, are presented inthe Torah as mitzvot we do for God. We are directed, for example, touse only honest weights and measures. To be certain, part of theconcern is to prevent others from being cheated. But equallyimportant (see Leviticus 19:36) is the desecration of God’s name,which would result from one of His children behaving in a crookedmanner. Similarly, the commandment that epitomizes Judaism’sinterpersonal ethic — “You should love your neighbor as yourself” –is explained by the late Nehama Leibowitz as being the command torecognize that God created all people, and, therefore, they deserveto be treated accordingly. Of course, this mitzvah benefits thepeople around us, and human society at large. But it is alsoinextricably intertwined with our relationship with, and beliefsabout, God.

The message of all this, I believe, is clear: TheTorah’s mitzvot defy the neat categories of “for people” and “forGod.” Performance of a “for God” mitzvah, such as eating matzo orobserving Shabbat or attending prayer services, that does not have a”for people” component to it is an incomplete performance. There isalways a way to be sure that the mitzvah we are engaged in will bringbenefit to the people around us. Similarly, any performance of a “forpeople” mitzvah that does not animate our feelings for God, that doesnot reinforce and strengthen our commitment to our covenant with God,is also an incomplete mitzvah. In extending a hand to people, weshould feel ourselves to simultaneously be taking a step towardGod.

This insight about the nature of mitzvot, and thenature of God’s will for us, has important implications forcontemporary Jewish life. It is not valid to shut oneself into “thefour cubits of the study hall” and be unconcerned with the materialand spiritual welfare of the larger community — Jewish as well asnon-Jewish. There is no such concept as mitzvot “for Godonly.”

The same can be said concerning behaving ethicallysolely for the sake of behaving ethically. Surely, there is greatmerit to it. But it cannot be equated with the performance ofmitzvah. The moments of our greatest moral accomplishment, themoments of our most compassionate embrace of less fortunate humanbeings, need also to be moments that we sense God’s satisfaction withus.

The concept of mitzvah is enjoying a well-deservedappreciation in these days of general spiritual striving. This week’sTorah reading gives us an even deeper appreciation of its complexityand wonder.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’naiDavid-Judea in Los Angeles.

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